News from Mars: Mysterious Martian Ball Found!

Mars_ballThe rocky surface of Mars has turned up some rather interestingly-shaped objects in the past. First there was the Martian rat, followed shortly thereafter by the Martian donut; and very recently, the Martian thighbone. And in this latest case, the Curiosity rover has spotted what appears to be a perfectly-round ball. Even more interesting is the fact that this sphere may be yet another indication of Mars’ watery past.

The rock ball was photographed on Sept. 11 – on Sol 746 of the rover’s mission on Mars – while Curiosity was exploring the Gale Crater. One of Curiosity’s cameras captured several images of the centimeter-wide ball as part of the stream of photographs was taking. The scientists working at the Mars Science Laboratory based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), immediately began to examine it for indications of what it could be.

mars-selfie-01-140501As Ian O’Neill of Discovery News, who spoke with NASA after the discovery, wrote:

According to MSL scientists based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., the ball isn’t as big as it looks — it’s approximately one centimeter wide. Their explanation is that it is most likely something known as a “concretion”… and they were created during sedimentary rock formation when Mars was abundant in liquid water many millions of years ago.

Curiosity has already found evidence of water at a dig site in Yellowknife Bay, which took place shortly after it landed in the Gale Crater two years ago. In addition, this is not the first time a Mars rover has found rocky spheres while examining the surface. In 2004, NASA’s Opportunity rover photographed a group of tiny balls made of a ferrous mineral called hematite. Opportunity photographed still more spheres, of a different composition, eight years later.

mars-blueberriesThe spheres likely formed through a process called “concretion”, where minerals precipitate within sedimentary rock, often into oval or spherical shapes. When the rock erodes due to wind or water, it leaves the balls of minerals behind and exposed. If in fact concretion caused the Mars spheres, then they would be evidence there was once water on the planet. However, some scientists believe the rock balls might be leftover from meteorites that broke up in the Martian atmosphere.

Curiosity is now at the base of Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons) – The 5.6 km-high (3.5 mile) mountain in the center of Gale Crater – scientists are excited to commence the rover’s main science goal. This will consists of more drilling into layered rock and examining the powder so scientist can gain an idea about how habitable the Red Planet was throughout its ancient history, and whether or not it may have been able to support microbial life.

MarsCuriosityTrek_20140911_AMission managers will need to be careful as the rover has battered wheels from rougher terrain than expected. Because of this, the rover will slowly climb the slope of Mount Sharp driving backwards, so as to minimize the chance of any further damage. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) will also be on hand to help, photographing the route from above to find the smoothest routes.

Despite the wear and tear that the little rover has experienced in its two years on the Martian surface, it has discovered some amazing things and NASA scientists anticipate that it will accomplish much more in the course of its operational history. And as it carried on with its mission to decode the secrets of Mars, we can expect it will find lots more interesting rocks – spherical, rat-shaped, ringed, femur-like, or otherwise.

 

Sources: cbc.ca, universetoday.com, news.discovery.com

News from Mars: Curiosity Arrives at Mount Sharp

curiosity-mars-self-portrait-crop-640x353After two years exploring the Martian surface, the Curiosity Rover has finally reached its primary science destination – the foot of Mount Sharp, officially known as Aeolis Mons. Now that it’s there, it will begin its ascent of the rock formation, drill into rocks and analyze the different strata in the hopes of learning more about the history of the Red Planet. This is an event a long time in the making, and may prove to yield some of the greatest scientific discoveries ever made.

Located in the heart of the Gale Crater, Mount Sharp is like a layer cake, holding a chronology of past events reaching back billions of years. Because of this, it is an ideal place to find evidence that the Martian surface and atmosphere were once capable of supporting life. It took two years and one month for Curiosity reach the foot of this mountain, which lies some 5500 meters (18,000 feet) above the floor of Gale Crater.

MarsCuriosityTrek_20140911_AThe mountain is the central peak in a crater that measures 154 km/96 miles in diameter and which was formed when a meteor impacted the surface between 3.5 and 3.8 billion years ago. Beyond a certain size, and depending on the gravity of the planet, craters like this all have a central peak. But Mount Sharp represents something much more, otherwise NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory wouldn’t be bothering with it.

Basically, Mars scientists believe that after its creation, the Gale crater was completely filled with sedimentary material from a series of huge floods, or by dust and ice deposits like those that happened at the Martian polar caps. The deposition over 2 billion years left a series sedimentary layers that filled the crater. Following the deposition of the layers, there was a long period of erosion which has finally led to the condition of the crater today.

mountsharp_galecraterThe erosion by some combination of aeolean (wind) forces and water (additional flooding), scooped out the huge crater, re-exposing most of the original depth. However, covering the original central peak are many sedimentary layers of debris. Gale crater’s original central peak actually remains completely hidden and covered by sedimentation. And it is this that attracted scientists with the Curiosity rover to the base of Mount Sharp.

Within the sedimentary layers is a sequential record of the environmental conditions on Mars going back over 2 billion years. While at the base, Curiosity will be able to examine the oldest sedimentary layers; but as it climbs the flanks of the mountain, it will be able to step forward in time. Each layer and its age will reveal information such as how much water was present, whether the water was alkaline or acidic, if there is any organic compounds.

john_klein_curiosity-2The discovery of organic compounds on Mount Sharp could be “Earth shaking”, since the discovery of organics is of very high importance to this mission. Already, over the two year trek, Curiosity has seen numerous signs of the flow of water and sedimentation. Interestingly enough, evidence began to turn up way back in Yellowknife Bay — one of its first destinations, which it visited almost two years ago. But as of yet, signs of organic compounds have remained illusive.

What’s more, Curiosity sadly lacks the necessary equipment to look for evidence of microbial fossils or other signatures of life. Fortunately, the next rover – the Mars 2020 rover – will be equipped with the necessary tools to work out whether Mars ever harbored life. In any case, because of the lack of organic compounds in Yellowknife, NASA decided to continue to Mount Sharp, which is currently the best place to dig up scientific data about Mars’ past.

MSL_TraverseMap_Sol0743-2048Curiosity is currently at the base of Mount Sharp, in a region called the Pahrump Hills, where it will continue on to the Murray Formation. Once there, it will take a drill sample of some rock and then continue up Mount Sharp towards the Hematite Ridge where two drill sites await. This farthest site is about 8 km (5 mi) away from its present position, and Curiosity has driven only 9 km since it landed in 2012. So there’s plenty of trekking and work ahead!

One of the greatest challenges is finding a path that will reduce the stress on Curiosity’s wheels, which have been put through some serious wear and tear in the past two years. Because of this, the rover is being driven in reverse for the time being, and the team is looking the path with the least amount of sharp rocks. However, the Mars Curiosity remains confident that the mobility system will be capable of surviving the ten year life span of the rover’s power supply.

And be sure to check out this “Curiosity Rover Report” that talks about this historic accomplishment, courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

Sources: universetoday.com, extremetech.com, jpl.nasa.gov, space.com

News from Space: Coming Comet Flyby of Mars

Mars_comet_flybyEarth’s neighbor is once again making the news, but not for the usual reasons. Rather than groundbreaking discoveries or updates being provided by the small army of rovers or satellites, the NASA has now got its eyes firmly fixed on the Red Planet because of an incoming comet. And in the coming months, NASA is taking every precaution to make sure its orbiting spacecraft are out of the way.

Known as C/2013 A1 Siding Spring, the comet’s icy nucleus is predicted to flyby Mars on Oct. 19th, and will miss the planet by just 132,000 km (82,000 miles). That’s 17 times closer than the closest recorded Earth-approaching comet, Lexell’s Comet, which skittered by our world in 1770. And while this is certainly a record-breaking event, no one is concerned about it damaging anything on the Martian surface.

Mars_comet_sidingspringIn fact, it the dust particles embedded in the comet’s vaporizing ice that concerns NASA planners. As dust spreads into a broad tail that could potentially brush Mars’ upper atmosphere, it could also play havoc with or even strike an orbiter. While tiny particles are hardly a hazard on their own, when they are traveling at 56 km (35 miles) per second relative to a spacecraft, a single impact could spell disaster.

Rich Zurek, chief scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, explains:

Three expert teams have modeled this comet for NASA and provided forecasts for its flyby of Mars. The hazard is not an impact of the comet nucleus, but the trail of debris coming from it. Using constraints provided by Earth-based observations, the modeling results indicate that the hazard is not as great as first anticipated. Mars will be right at the edge of the debris cloud, so it might encounter some of the particles — or it might not.

mars-comet-NASAHence why NASA is looking to get its hardware out of the way. The agency currently operates the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Odyssey spacecraft with a third orbiter, MAVEN, currently on its way to the planet and expected to settle into orbit a month before the comet flyby. Teams operating the orbiters plan to have all spacecraft positioned on the opposite side of Mars when the comet is most likely to pass by.

Already, mission planners tweaked MRO’s orbit on July 2 to move it toward a safe position with a second maneuver to follow on August 27. A similar adjustment is planned for Mars Odyssey on August 5 and October 9 for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) probe. The time of greatest risk to the spacecraft is brief – about 20 minutes – when the widest part of the comet’s tail passes closest to the planet.

MARS-COMET-surfaceAs for the rovers on the surface, there really isn’t much to worry about there. Similar to what happens with meteor showers here on Earth, Mars’ atmosphere is thick enough that cometary dust particles will incinerate before they reach the surface. And its expected that rover cameras may be used to photograph the comet before the flyby and to capture meteors during the comet’s closest approach.

Despite concerns about dust, NASA knows a good opportunity when it sees one. In the days before and after the flyby, all three orbiters will conduct studies on the comet. According to a recent NASA press release, instruments on MRO and Odyssey will examine the nucleus, coma and tail and possible effects on the Martian atmosphere:

Odyssey will study thermal and spectral properties of the comet’s coma and tail. MRO will monitor Mars’ atmosphere for possible temperature increases and cloud formation, as well as changes in electron density at high altitudes and MAVEN will study gases coming off the comet’s nucleus as it’s warmed by the sun. The team anticipates this event will yield detailed views of the comet’s nucleus and potentially reveal its rotation rate and surface features.

This is Comet Siding Spring’s first trip to the inner solar system, so we can expect plenty of news and updates as it passes Mars. And the icy vapor and dust it leaves behind, which has been in a state of deep freeze since the time the planets were formed, will make for some pretty interest research as well! And be sure to check out this Solar System Scope simulation of the comet’s path as it makes it way through our Solar System past Mars.

Source: universetoday.com, solarsystemscope.com

News From Space: Curiosity’s Latest Photos

curiosity_sol-177-1April was a busy month for the very photo-talented (and photogenic) Curiosity Rover. In addition to another panoramic shot of the Martian landscape – which included Curiosity looking back at itself, making it a “selfie” – the rover also managed to capture a night-sky image that captured two minor planets and the Martian moon of Deimos in the same picture. At a time when Curiosity and Opportunity are both busy on long-haul missions to find evidence of life, these latest pictures remind us that day-to-day operations on Mars are still relevant.

The first shot took place on April 20th (Sol 606), when rover scientists used the Mast Camera to capture the minor planets of Ceres and Vesta, as well as the moon of Deimos, in the same frame. Ceres is a minor planet with a diameter of about 950 km, and is the largest object in the main asteroid belt. With a diameter of about 563 km, Vesta is the third-largest object in the asteroid belt. Deimos, meanwhile, is the smaller of Mars’ two moons, with a mean radius of 6 km.

curiosity_nightskyIn the main portion of the new image (seen above), Vesta, Ceres and three stars appear as short streaks due to the duration of a 12-second exposure. In other camera pointings the same night, the Curiosity’s camera also imaged Phobos and the planets Jupiter and Saturn, which are shown as insets on the left.  Dr Mark Lemmon from Texas A&M University, a Curiosity team member, explained:

this imaging was part of an experiment checking the opacity of the atmosphere at night in Curiosity’s location on Mars, where water-ice clouds and hazes develop during this season… The two Martian moons were the main targets that night, but we chose a time when one of the moons was near Ceres and Vesta in the sky.

Deimos was much brighter than the visible stars, Vesta and Ceres in the same part of the sky, in the main image. The circular inset covers a patch of sky the size that Earth’s full moon appears to observers on Earth. At the center of that circular inset, Deimos appears at its correct location in the sky, in a 0.25 second exposure.

Curiosity_selfieAs for the latest in Curiosity’s long-line of panoramic self-portraits, this one comes to us courtesy of Jason Major. As a graphic designer and amateur space explorer, Major assembled the picture from about the dozen or so images acquired with the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) instrument on April 27-28, 2014 (Sol 613). In the background, one can see the 5.5-km-high (3.4 miles) Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons) that sits in the center of the Gale Crater.

One thing that Major noted about the picture he assembled is the way the cylindrical RUHF antenna and the bit of the RTG that is visible in the lower center seem to form a “toothy (if slightly dusty) grin”. But, as he stated:

…with almost 21 Earth-months on Mars and lots of discoveries already under her robot belt, Curiosity (and her team) certainly have plenty to smile about!

And the best is likely to still be coming. As we speak, Curiosity is making its way towards Mount Sharp and is expected to arrive there sometime in August. As the primary goal in its mission, Curiosity set off for this destination back in June after spending months studying Glenelg area. She is expected to arrive at the foot of the mountain in August, where she will begin drilling in an effort to study the mountain’s vast caches of minerals – which could potentially support a habitable environment.

mountsharp_galecraterIf Curiosity does find evidence of organic molecules in this cache, it will be one of the greatest scientific finds ever made, comparable only to the discovery of hominid remains in the Olduvai Gorge, or the first recorded discovery of dinosaur remains. For not only will we have definitive proof that life once existed on Mars, we will know with some certainly that it may again someday…

Stay tuned for more news from the Red Planet. And in the meantime, keep on trucking Curiosity!

Sources: sci-news.com, universetoday.com